The 49ers might get a three-day window to negotiate with their own free agents before the start of what promises to be a Wild West free-agency period. The team has 15 free agents on the roster. I've divided the list into offense and defense and ranked the players on the likelihood that they'll be in red and gold this season. First the defensive players ...
DL Ray McDonald: McDonald made it very clear last month that he wants a bigger role than he's had in recent seasons with the 49ers when he has been used primarily as a third-down specialist. He told The Bee he wants to be a starter, and that the team that is eying him as such will have the best chance of landing him on the free-agent market. As it happens, the 49ers could have just the opportunity McDonald wants. Aubrayo Franklin's departure (see below) would create a domino effect on the line that would leave an opening at left defensive end. McDonald would appear to be the prime candidate to step into that role. McDonald is a rare defender who has the size of an interior linemen but the quick-twitch ability of a smaller man. With that in mind, the 49ers have made him a pass-rush specialist in recent years, pairing him with Justin Smith as a defensive tackle on third downs. McDonald's ability against the run is more of a mystery. Placing him at left defensive end would symbolize the transformation from Greg Manusky's defensive scheme, which emphasized stopping the run, to Vic Fangio's, which presumably will put a premium on rushing the quarterback.
ILB Takeo Spikes: Spikes has been consistently good since arriving with the 49ers in 2008, but 2010 may have been his best season yet. He started all 16 games, something he hadn't done since 2004, and he finished second to Patrick Willis in tackles. When game planning against the 49ers, offenses saw Spikes, 34, as a potential weakness in pass coverage. Spikes responded with three interceptions, which tied him for the team lead. Spikes also is the team's union representative, and he has a prominent - perhaps the most prominent - voice inside the 49ers' locker room. The 49ers want him back, and he's said he wants to be back. Spikes may not be a Day 1 free-agent signee, but the chances that he lines up next to Willis on opening day are very good.
OLB Travis LaBoy. When the guys at Football Focus ranked the NFC West linebackers, they found that LaBoy gave his team the most bang for its pass-rush buck. LaBoy, a third-down pass rusher, only played 329 snaps but finished with five sacks and five quarterbacks hits. Contrast that with starter Parys Haralson, who had a team-high (among OLBs) 694 snaps and finished with four sacks and three quarterback hits. LaBoy's mission in 2010 was to prove that he could stay healthy through the course of a season. That quest yielded mixed results. He missed a big chunk of training camp with a concussion. He ended the season on injured reserve with a late-season knee injury. But he also proved that the foot injury that wiped away his 2009 season was not a factor. And more than that, he proved that he has the most sought-after skill in an outside linebacker - rushing the passer. LaBoy will shop himself on the free-agent market. But the regime change in San Francisco, coupled with the fact that he is from the area, give him a decent shot at returning.
DL Demetric Evans. He might be the most anonymous 49er. And his stat line from 2010 - 15 tackles, 0 sacks, 1 pass defensed - doesn't jump out either. Still, Evans played in all 16 games last season and is a solid, if unspectacular, nine-year veteran. He could easily step in and start at either end position if there were an injury. And the 49ers may want him for depth, especially if Franklin departs and Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois concentrate on nose tackle. The 49ers front office and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula are fond of youngster Will Tukuafu. If they envision him working into the line rotation this year, they could pass on re-signing Evans.
S Dashon Goldson. The 49ers have seven safeties on their roster. An eighth player, third-round pick Chris Culliver, mostly played safety in college. But only one of those players, Goldson, has any meaningful experience as a starter. Goldson has started 34 games, which isn't a whopping number by any stretch. But it's a lot more than the second-most experienced safety, Reggie Smith, who has seven starts. Fangio's defense is currently a mystery. The 49ers defensive players don't even have a playbook. But he promises to be more aggressive rushing the passer than his predecessor, which, in turn, promises to both create more opportunities for and put more pressure on the secondary. Which is to say, the 49ers would like to have someone with Goldson's experience and ball-hawking potential. The question is whether they would match what Goldson, who is only 26, can get on the open market. Or with a load of young safeties of their own, including second rounder Taylor Mays, do they let him walk away?
So long, farewell ...
OLB Manny Lawson. The 49ers signaled their intent last year when Lawson wanted a contract extension and the team didn't give it to him. Furthermore, they took him off the field on the most crucial down for an outside linebacker - third down - during the 2010 season. One more blow to Lawson's potential return: The 49ers used the No. 7 overall pick to draft a player, Aldon Smith, at Lawson's position. Lawson has a unique skill set. He's tall, athletic and fast, skills that make him excellent in pursuit and in pass coverage. He's also been surprisingly stout against the run given his lanky physique. However, he's never been the pass rusher the team envisioned when they used a first-round pick on him in 2006. Lawson would seem to have value as an outside linebacker in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, which means he promises to get plenty of attention on the open market. Bill Parcells reportedly was high on Lawson before the 2006 draft, and the coach who drafted him, Mike Nolan, is the defensive coordinator in Miami. Another AFC East team, the linebacker-needy Patriots, also are a possibility. The Seahawks might land him. Former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan has sway in Seattle's front office and Lawson has been training in Arizona with 49er-turned-Seahawk Michael Robinson. At this point, there seems to be little chance that he will return to San Francisco.
NT Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin received very little attention when he arrived with the 49ers in March of 2007. After all, he agreed to join the 49ers on the same day that the team landed free agents cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis, the two players who were going to transform the 49ers' ailing secondary. (They 49ers finished 26th in pass defense and had 14 INTs in 2006; They finished 24th and had 15 INTs last season. Progress). Four and a half years later, Franklin has been perhaps the best of the three and certainly has been the biggest bargain. He's started all but four games in the past four seasons, and he's gotten raves from well-respected teammates Justin Smith and Willis, whose play in particular is linked to how well the nose tackle plays in front of him. Last year the 49ers were able to hold onto Franklin with the franchise tag. This year his tag number is expected to jump to more than $12 million, and the 49ers opted not to retain him in that fashion. It looks like Franklin, who has wanted to reach the open market for two years, finally will get his wish barring some sort of right-of-first-refusal language in the new collective bargaining agreement. Furthermore, there promises to be a strong market for him. Reports out of Washington this offseason have said that the nose tackle-desperate Redskins (See: Haynesworth, Albert; the saga of) have triple underlined Franklin's name on their list of free-agent targets.
CB Will James. James' 2010 season was perhaps most notable for the fact that the 49ers signed him with a fractured pubic bone, which kept him out of the team's early offseason practices. That was just one of several injuries James incurred, and he played defense in only four games during the season.
-- Matt Barrows